Shock tactics

10th February 2006 at 00:00
To make a lasting impression on pupils studying Victorian Britain or the history of medicine, include lots of blood and squalor, writes David Bocking

James Wilson's parents died of cholera when he was a year old. He works as a servant at a Leeds bookseller, but when delivering a book to a local farmer, the 11-year-old drinks a cup of unsterilised milk.

Alice Finch, seven, is the bookseller's pampered daughter. Her parents do their best to protect her from the local children, but last Sunday she was accosted by a coughing beggar on the way to church.

Thomas Sowden is a 42-year-old widower. His four children are all dead, and he consoles himself at the local pub. He is a nightsoil man, and he recently took a drink of water from the pump alongside his workplace at the communal toilets.

"The challenge to the designers of the Thackray Museum was to make a collection of medical instruments interesting to an audience," explains museum education officer, Helen Patching. "So we took the social history aspect and looked at how medicine affected people's lives in Leeds in the 1840s.

"We look at eight characters based on real people, and children meet these characters in their environment, such as a lodging house or pub. And then each character gets a dreadful illness of the time," Helen says.

The drama, she says, is an important part of the experience, and leads children to make choices about a character's response to illness. Would Thomas, James or Alice choose a herbal or traditional family remedy? Should they visit a chemist, or try to raise money for a doctor? Or maybe buy a bottle of Cooper's Famous Blood Mixture from a man on the street corner, who guarantees it will cure almost everything?

And there's more drama in the recreated Victorian street scene, based on Dr Robert Baker's Poor Law report on Leeds in 1842.

Children see how working people of the time lived their lives among rats, blood, and faeces. Thomas Sowden eats his meat pies on a wall between the butcher's waste heap and the toilet overflow. He hasn't washed his hands, the children observe. And in the air is a sickly sweet smell of blood and urine. The children hold their noses. Luckily, the incense burner which provides the smell needs replenishing, say museum staff. Usually the smell is stronger.

The Victorian street, and the following galleries depicting the cures available to people at the time, are often the focal points of the museum for pupils studying Victorian Britain or the history of medicine GCSE curriculum. Items from the Thackray collection of medical equipment, which form the basis of the museum, are incorporated into the displays.

Teaching packs include a key stage 1 pack on Florence Nightingale, and key stages 1 and 2 material on poverty and life in a workhouse. The GCSE material includes work on surgical methods, health choices and developments in medical knowledge during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Other galleries include Victorian surgery and the modern use of artificial joints and prosthetics, birth and child mortality over the past 100 years, and graphic representations of the human body, including a chance to follow a pea on its journey through an oversized digestive tract.

Further teaching packs cover maths, literacy and science for most age groups, and new material is being prepared for key stage 3 students on microbes and diseases, and for AS-level physics students on biomechanical engineering and modern diagnostic tools. But for primary pupils, it's the blood and squalor that make the lasting impression.

"It brings the period alive," says Sheila Crone, Years 5 and 6 teacher at Langton primary school, near Malton, North Yorkshire. "History can often be made too sanitised."

"It was a really good experience," says 10-year-old Felix Syms, "but disgusting."

And in true TV drama style, pupils don't find out what happens to their stricken characters until the end: Alice Finch caught measles but survived and died at the age of 78 from heart disease. Thomas Sowden survived typhoid, but caught cholera and died a few years later. James Wilson caught diptheria, and died aged 11. The Langton primary school children look shocked. He was the same age as us, they say.; tel: 0113 244 4343; email:

Prices: pound;3 primary; pound;3.50 secondary, based on groups of 24 pupils. Teachers free

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